Slaves of the mines

Print edition : March 09, 2007

The book gives a fictional account from a Marxist angle of the very real problems faced by coal miners in West Bengal and Jharkhand.

A PROGRESSIVE person of the Marxist persuasion, K. Chinnappa Bharathi is arguably the only one of his kind in Tamil Nadu, combining in himself a relentless fighter and a resolute writer fired by an insatiable thirst to liberate victims of exploitation. Describing him as "a humanist with a fighting spirit", fellow Tamil novelist Ponneelan evaluates him as an uncompromising realist for whom literature is nothing but an honest expression of social life.

Although Bharathi's novels number only six, each one of them bears the impress of his world view and literary policy that the foremost duty of a writer is to be on the side of the suffering masses in their struggle to fight poverty and to end disparities of all sorts. The very fact that all his five earlier novels have been translated into several languages indicates the success of his literary efforts. Thaagam (Thirst), considered by many as his masterpiece, has been translated into Bengali, Malayalam and Telugu, besides English. Sangam (The Union) has been rendered into English, French and six Indian languages including Hindi. In his forewords to the English versions of Thaagam and Sangam, the Marxist ideologue E.M.S. Namboodiripad calls Bharathi "a talented writer" and hails his success in portraying in the two novels "a society that is regenerating itself" and "a new society that is emerging".

Thaagam gives one an understanding of the agrarian society in Tamil Nadu and shows how the bitter experiences of the rural poor "fire the once-humble farmer and coolie with the spirit of resistance and how they begin a new life".

Sangam is about the travails of the tribal people in Tamil Nadu's Kolli Hills - about the attempts made by these hapless people to free themselves through organised struggles from the clutches of the avaricious moneylenders and tradesmen from the plains and corrupt forest officials. Sri Lankan Tamil scholar Karthikesu Sivathamby rates Thaagam as one of about 25 significant novels of the 20th century and suggests that Bharathi's works deserve deeper study.

The author's latest novel, Surangam (Mine), is no different from the earlier ones inasmuch as it deals with the same subject of exploitation of the toiling masses and their organised resistance. What distinguishes it from the others is that it deals with a people alien to his familiar Tamil soil. In response to a request from Bikash Chowdhury (1932-2005), one of the dedicated leaders of the All India Coal Workers Federation (affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions) and who represented the well-known coal mine centre of Asansol in the Lok Sabha, Bharathi chose the miseries of the mine workers of West Bengal and Jharkhand for his story.

Members of A rescue team coming out of the Bhatdih colliery of Bharat Coking Coal Limited near Dhanbad, Jharkhand, in the wee hours of September 8, 2006. Fifty-four miners were trapped inside the mine following an explosion two days before. Most of them died.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

Bharathi explains in his preface how hesitant he was initially to take up the challenging task, particularly because of his limitations in internalising the social and cultural moorings of the people, separated by thousands of kilometres from his home State, on whose lives and problems he had to write. Encouraged by the information that he was perhaps the first to write a fictional account from a Marxist angle on the problems of coal workers, he spent many days visiting coal mines in Asansol, Dhanbad and other places to get first-hand knowledge, albeit limited, of the technical problems involved and staying with the workers' families to see for himself their living conditions. He does not hesitate to admit that his limitations in this field and the cultural barriers understandably affected his ability to etch out the characters and hampered the narrative, too, substantially. This inadequacy, if it can be called so, is, however, more than compensated for by his deft handling of their problems. Their problems, in fact, are common to the exploited sections of almost all societies cutting across castes, religions and languages.

The author's description of the living quarters of the coal mine workers and his assertion that they are no different from a modern city slum give a very confident start to the novel. The novelist gives a detailed account of the workers' daily schedule in the coal mines and the humiliation they suffer at the hands of the "mining sardar'' and the "mining munshi", who supervise their work. Through the characters he brings out the corruption indulged in by the owners of the mine in collusion with contractors and supervisors. The denial of basic human rights, the manipulation of wages, the exploitation of the workers' ignorance, and the inhuman treatment meted out to women by these persons and the moneylenders of the village have all been highlighted.

In almost all mines, the miners are forced to work in primitive conditions with absolutely no regard for safety aspects. The efforts of a couple of motivated young leaders to set up a resistance to the atrocities by creating awareness among the workers about the need to fight for their rights form the core of the story. The principal character, one of the two leaders, is named Bikas, perhaps in honour of Bikash Chowdhury. Alternating between fears and hopes, the workers gradually learn by experience that only a united, organised struggle can bring them solace. In the process, they learn that their objective should be to take up issues larger than a mere pay hike and that their struggle should be made more broad-based by involving a larger number of suffering people.

Nationalisation of mines also did not bring the desired results in many cases. The conditions of workers in the nationalised mines were no better, since in most mines officials donned the owners' role as exploiters. Workers were forced to live in unhealthy conditions and to work unmindful of the scant attention the managements paid to safety standards. Significantly, this has been going on in mines across the globe, from the United States to China. Frequent accidents in mines, which take a heavy toll, are reported in many countries even today. In China alone, 6,027 people were killed in 3,639 mine accidents in 2004. This is part of the price the country has to pay for rapid economic growth, which forces the mines to work overtime, flouting all safety rules. Poor industrial administration, insufficient supervision over production, and security lapses are believed to be the other factors responsible for the frequent mine accidents. In India, at Chas Nala (now in Jharkhand), about 400 people were killed on December 28, 1975, in one of its worst coal mine accidents. Twenty years later 60 miners were killed in a similar accident at Ghastiland in the Dhanbad district of the same State. In both places flooding of the mines caused the accidents.

Bharathi ends the novel with the flooding of a coal mine caused by the officials' utter disregard for safety norms despite being cautioned by workers. The 300 workers who are trapped inside the mine lose their lives. The accident occurs at a time when the workers are making preparations for a strike. Among those killed is Dilip Paswan, Bikas's associate. Paying homage to the dead, Bikas declares: "Humans die, but humankind does not." The novel ends on this optimistic note. The heart-rending scene will keep disturbing the reader for weeks on end.

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